Welcome back to school feminists! Hope everyone had a fun and rewarding summer, for now it is back to the grind. Before you immerse yourself into the wide world of student life, try to make some time to reflect on the summer and everything you’ve learned. It’s a great time to take an inventory of what wisdom you have gained as you approach the next year. Reflection should help you too see what has worked for you as an activist in the past as well as what hasn’t worked and what you will do differently in the future, which may also serve to help you feel more mentally prepared for the chaos you are inevitably about to embark upon.
For this article, I want to provide some ideas for how to get hooked into the resources available to you on your campus. The easiest way to do this is to connect with existing organizations that focus on social justice. A great place to start is finding out if your school has a Women’s Center or a similar organization. Women’s Centers frequently offer services such as outreach, peer advisory, resources, referrals, and event planning. They are also frequently under funded and/or understaffed, and so volunteers are welcomed enthusiastically. The Women’s Center at my school has become my on-campus home—I’ve been volunteering there for going on four years now mainly because it is a space on campus where I feel safe and supported. Also, the Women’s Center at my school puts on annual events such as V-Week and Take Back the Night, so there are some amazing opportunities for student involvement.
Another type of organization to look for on campus is something like our Ethnic Student Center (ESC). The ESC at my school encompasses clubs for every ethnicity you could think of, practically, and works to increase awareness of diversity issues on campus as well as provide support to students of minority ethnicities and races. Our ESC even includes a club of LGBTQ students of color and their allies called Brown Pride. ESCs are important to get connect with even if you’re not a student of color because part of feminism is recognizing the intersections of all oppressions. However, if you are white/Anglo, be aware that it is essential that you recognize your privilege before you enter this terrain and be aware the intricacies of race issues. There is a lot to learn from being white/Anglo and investing yourself in race issues, but it can be a very sensitive pursuit. Keep yourself open, dialogue, discuss, and go there out of friendship—this will all help the process go a little more smoothly.
Violence prevention organizations can also offer opportunities for student involvement. These are organizations that deal with issues such as dating violence and sexual assault, among many other issues. There may be a 24-hour crisis line that needs advocates for their hotline, or there may be some opportunities to work as a peer educator. The services provided by violence prevention programs will vary for school to school.
Finally, there may be a plethora of student-run feminist clubs on your campus. Some will be official chapters of larger organizations such as NARAL, the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), or Voices for Planned Parenthood (VOX). Others will be purely the creation of fellow feminist activists on your campus. To get connected to any of the organizations I have mentioned so far, I recommend contacting your schools office for student life (or its equivalent). They should be able to tell you whether or not your school has the organization, and put you in contact with organizations that are available.
NARAL, FMLA, and VOX are all national organizations that have chapters at schools all over the country. If your school already has a chapter, that’s great! You can get hooked into the club the same way you would any other student club. NARAL is a large-based abortion rights organization, and this year they will be very busy working against the results of John Roberts’ appointment to the Supreme Court. VOX is a student advocate organization that focuses on women’s reproductive rights and sexual health. FMLA, the student activism portion of the Feminist Majority Foundation, also focuses largely on reproductive rights issues, but also spotlights some other issues as well.
If your school doesn’t have a chapter of any of these organizations, there is a specific process for starting a campus chapter for each group. To start a chapter of NARAL, visit the Take Action site to learn more about their various opportunities for involvement. To start a chapter of VOX, visit their website to download Health! Choice! Activism!: the Planned Parenthood Guide to Campus Organizing, their organizers guide. To start a chapter of FMLA, visit their site to fill out their form.
In interviewing the president of my campus’ FMLA chapter, Katherine Shulock, she brought up a really great point. "As a beginning feminist activist," she said, "it has become increasingly important for me to understand how to work with people on their own level, on their own terms, in ways that challenge them but also allow them space to being their experiences and assumptions into the picture. I know there are a lot of men and women in this community who may not be comfortable addressing gender issues in a radical or overtly ‘feminist’ way. After trying out the FMLA approach, which requests that I support and push the national agenda of the FMF (the Feminist Majority Foundation), I have discovered the benefits of organizing in a more local level with people in this community and the importance of connecting with and engaging with people on their own terms, rather than on my own or on the national agenda. For example, I just started an all-female skateboarding club in Bellingham (Washington) that I hope will connect women who are interested in skateboarding and/or trying new things and will provide a supportive and empowering environment for women to learn, have fun, and be leaders. I realize the importance of creating a safe space for women to try new things such as skateboarding (predominantly male sport) and want to share what I know both about skateboarding and being a feminist. Hopefully this will create a more meaningful and lasting connection—both to me as a person and to my beliefs—and open up breathing room to process feminism and gender issues…In this way, I am moving away from the broader national agenda of the FMLA and FMF, which is equally important, more as a personal experiment in my skills as an feminist activist and leader. My hope is that these two agendas/tactics can be integrated in the future."
Which brings me to my next point: starting your own on campus club. The first step is to recruit members. You will most likely need about five people other than yourself that are willing to commit themselves to the time and energy needed to make the club work. Once you’ve got your club members together, you should sit down together and write a mission statement that describes your purpose as an organization. This can be as formal or as informal as you’d like it to be. Then, create an agenda. Some clubs will have more specific agendas than others, for example, a club dedicated to addressing the intersection of race and LGBTQ oppression will have a very different looking agenda than the all-women skate club. Finally, once your group is clear on its purpose and goals, apply for club status at your school. Every school will have a different process for this, so this may take a little research. Again, the office for student life is always a good place to start, or the university resident life office may be of some help as well.
Lastly, it is always a good idea for feminist student activists to get connected to their campus’ women’s studies department. Whether or not you decide to pursue a degree in women’s studies, the department will serve you well as a resource. And it is important to note that if your school doesn’t have a women’s studies department (or a women’s center, ethnic student center, or any other vital organization that advocates for oppressed populations), that is a desperate cry for some much needed activism right there.
I hope that everyone has a great year making the world more just for women. As always, I’m hoping that some of you out there will start sending me your stories of activism for the Feminist.com college activism database so that we may share ideas and strengthen the movement.
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Brooke N. Benjestorf is a senior at Fairhaven College, an interdisciplinary concentration design program at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Her chosen concentration is Feminist Activism and it includes study in writing, film, women’s studies, and social change. When she is not being a feminist activist extraordinaire she loves to hang out with her girlfriends, make art, and take good care of her dog (her best friend), Paytah.